Archive | June, 2018

Review: Time for the Stars

16 Jun

Review Time for the Stars

Now two things stick out like a sore thumb: the first is that you don’t like your brother."

I started to protest but he brushed it aside. “Let me talk.

“Why are you sure that I am wrong? Answer: because you have been told from birth that you love him. Siblings always `love’ each other; that is a foundation of our civilization like Mom’s apple pie. People usually believe anything that they are told early and often. Probably a good thing they believe this one, because brothers and sisters often have more opportunity and more reason to hate each other than anyone else.”

If you need proof of Robert Heinlein’s prowess as a wordsmith, you don’t really need to look further than my reaction to Time for the Stars. The blurb on the back made it sound boring – and my childhood self refused to pick the book up and read it – but when I finally did read it, I was impressed. There’s little of the action I like in this book, for all the wonder of telepathy and advanced technology, but the story is still captivating enough that I read it in one sitting and enjoyed it enough to overlook the handful of regressive (and problematic) aspects.

In an overpopulated future, Pat and Tom (the narrator) are twins – but they’re not identical. Pat is very much the dominant twin, to the point that everyone realises that he’s in charge … even without him doing very much. The twins were surprise babies, something that shaped their early life as their father – a man who hates paying court to the taxman – vigorously resists the need to pay extra taxes for his final children. Anyway, as Pat and Tom enter their late teens, they are recruited by the Long Range Foundation and taught how to use their telepathic talents for actual communication. Eventually, the LRF reveals the real purpose of the tests; they’re sending out a fleet of starships and they need the telepaths to maintain communications between the ships and Earth itself. Unfortunately, there’s a catch. One twin of each pair has to remain behind on Earth. But which one gets to go?

To Tom’s dull resentment, Pat steals that slot for himself with a minimum of effort … until he has a skiing accident that puts Tom in the slot instead. Tom is rushed to the ship before it can launch and hastily prepared for departure, while Pat remains behind and marries the girl they both liked. The ship departs and, in the space of a few months (for them; years pass on Earth) they explore a number of worlds, encountering dangers ranging from deadly alien diseases to intelligent (and hostile) aliens. Tom loses touch with Pat, but – fortunately – is able to establish a link with his descendents. Finally, after an exhausting trip, the crew are on the verge of mutiny … when they are picked up by an FTL ship from Earth. They are taken home, where they discover they’re yesterday’s news. Pat (now a very old man) tells Tom that he expects Tom to take over the family business (on the grounds that Tom is the only male heir left). Tom, who has grown into a man since being separated from his twin, tells him no … and marries one of Pat’s descendents, whom he has been in touch with since birth. And they both resolve to head back to the stars …

Heinlein does a very good job of showing us the relationship between Pat and Tom, through the eyes of an unreliable narrator. The relationship between them is oddly co-dependent, even though it’s clear – as one character points out later in the book – that Tom simply doesn’t like his brother very much. The real joke is that Pat genuinely didn’t want to go on the trip and his subconscious desire to escape provided the accident that put Tom in the slot (and Tom didn’t really want to go either.) Indeed, the story is more about Tom learning to stand up for himself – first against an unfortunate roommate, then against Pat himself – rather than naked adventure. This should be boring stuff, particularly given the situation, but Heinlein makes it work.

The book also draws a line between the settled, the people who want to stay at home (even though it is increasingly overpopulated), and the pioneers who want to explore and settle brave new worlds. Pat makes fun of a pair of girls who are horrified at the concept of interstellar exploration, although – in hindsight – it is clear that Pat isn’t keen on the idea either. And yet, even the explorers have their problems. It’s clear that the reason many people signed up for the trip is to explore, which is why so many telepaths (and others) resent the suggestion they should remain on the ship when they find a new world. People didn’t sign up to be communicators, they signed up to see new worlds with their own eyes. This clashes with the military discipline invoked by the ship’s captain, which is – quite reasonably – the only way to run a ship under such circumstances. But not all of the crew are trained military officers and men.

It’s also clear that the stresses of interstellar travel gradually wore the crew down until, after an encounter with hostile aliens, they are on the verge of mutiny. Heinlein neatly demonstrates how this puts the captain in an untenable position, where he can neither give in without fatally undermining his authority nor continue the voyage without risking outright mutiny. In some ways, Heinlein cheats at this point. Tom and his fellow crewmen do not cross the line because an FTL ship arrives to pick them up and provide (nearly) instant passage back to Earth. For a juvenile book, it has some pretty dark sections.

On a wider scale, Heinlein crafts a world where overpopulation is a serious threat – to the point that, if you have more than two children, you have to pay a head tax – and the LRF is trying to push the borders of human knowledge. Indeed, the description of the LRF’s charter is quite amusing:

The charter goes on with a lot of lawyers’ fog but the way the directors have interpreted it has been to spend money only on things that no government and no other corporation would touch. It wasn’t enough for a proposed project to be interesting to science or socially desirable; it also had to be so horribly expensive that no one else would touch it and the prospective results had to lie so far in the future that it could not be justified to taxpayers or shareholders.”

Time for the Stars also has some wry moments of humour, even in the darkest sections. At one point, Tom notes that good intentions really should be considered capital crimes; at another, Tom’s attempt to court a female telepath is spoilt by her sister, who remained on Earth but keeps looking over her sister’s shoulders. (The fact that this isn’t too different to the relationship between Pat and Tom is ignored by Tom.)

But the book also does have its regressive moments. The de facto leader of the telepaths, up until his near-death on an alien world, is ‘Uncle’ Alfred, a sixty-plus year old black man. He’s described as being practically a saint, the kind of person who “had the saintliness that old people get when they don’t turn sour and self-centred instead.” It passed me by on my first read, because no one makes an issue of his skin beyond the simple physical description, but ‘uncle’ isn’t always a compliment when addressed to a black man. (Where I grew up, ‘uncle’ was what we called elderly people who were family friends, even if they weren’t relatives, so I wouldn’t automatically see it as an insult.) Furthermore, Uncle Alfred (to be fair, he tells Tom to call him Uncle Alfred) is a very manipulative character, neatly manipulating the captain into giving him what he wants without ever crossing the line into outright insubordination. (He also gives a speech on the importance of obeying lawful orders, which reads a little awkwardly these days.) But this is a trait shown by Tom’s Uncle Steve too, who offers some good advice on the limits of arguing with one’s superiors:

Being a staff rating, I’ve served with a lot of high brass. When you are right and a general is wrong, there is only one way to get him to change his mind. You shut up and don’t argue. You let the facts speak for themselves and give him time to figure out a logical reason for reversing himself.”

Oddly, Uncle Alfred is not paired with a twin – he doesn’t have a twin – but with his six-year-old niece. (He took the LRF’s money to ensure that his niece would have a decent childhood.) In some ways, this undermines the central issue of the story – although it hints that the telepaths can build rapports with non-family before it becomes front and centre – and suggests that, eventually, we will all become telepaths. Perhaps twins just find it easier to breakthrough into real telepathy.

A secondary issue, perhaps more irritating, is a certain kind of sexism. Neither Pat nor Tom have much respect for their mother, who is – to be fair – a whiny woman-child when her babies are at risk. Pat manipulates her so well that its clear why her children don’t respect her. Later, Pat declares that he doesn’t have any heirs … and what he means is male heirs, as he had daughters. (To be fair, he means he wants the family name to continue … and it won’t, as – in those days – a married woman would take her husband’s name.) And there is something disturbing about Tom marrying his grandniece, although the romance is so poorly developed that it’s not as noticeable as it was in The Door into Summer. It seems to come right out of left field. To be fair, thanks to time dilation, Tom isn’t that much older than her.

The book also touches on the effects of battling government bureaucracy, although it isn’t clear if we’re meant to applaud or roll our eyes. Pat and Tom’s father is too stubborn to take the easy way out (by trading birthrights with another family, for example) and he keeps fighting, even though it’s clear that it’s pointless:

Dad was stubborn. He could have paid the annual head tax on us supernumeraries, applied for a seven-person flat, and relaxed to the inevitable. Then he could have asked for reclassification. Instead be claimed exemption for us twins each year, always ended by paying our head tax with his check stamped "Paid under Protest!" and we seven lived in a five-person flat. “

But this wasn’t all bad:

Dad used to talk about the intangible benefits of being poor—learning to stand on your own feet, building character, and all that. By the time I was old enough to understand I was old enough to wish they weren’t so intangible, but, thinking back, maybe he had a point.”

It’s clear that Time for the Stars had a greater impact on the science-fantasy field than science-fiction. Anne McCaffrey’s famous The Tower and the Hive series clearly draws on ideas Heinlein put forward in Time for the Stars, from telepaths serving as starship communicators to intergenerational marriages. (In Damia, Alfa Lyon marries the titular character, who he helped raise from birth. There’s at least twenty years between them even though both characters are of legal age.) Heinlein, however, dives much more into the science of interstellar travel, something McCaffrey chose to overlook. But then, her Talents are much more flexible than Heinlein’s telepaths.

Time for the Stars is not the best of the juveniles, nor is it the worst. It’s a little more idea-based than I would have expected, from a juvenile, but the story is developed enough that it doesn’t matter. Overall, despite some regressive moments, it is well worth a read.

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Review: Between Planets

15 Jun

Review Between Planets

“I’m a citizen of the System,” [Don] said harshly.

“Mmmm,” said the headmaster. “That’s a fine phrase and perhaps someday it will mean something. In the meantime, speaking as a friend, I agree with your parents. Mars is likely to be neutral territory; you’ll be safe there. Again, speaking as your friend—things may get a little rough here for anyone whose loyalty is not perfectly clear.”

The key to writing a juvenile book that appeals to all ages, as I will discuss later in greater detail, is balancing relative simplicity with a plotline and characters that don’t insult adult intelligence. A juvenile does not want to try to figure out the complex metaphysics of Stranger in a Strange Land, for example, while an adult does not want to bore himself with the lacklustre simplicity of Rocket Ship Galileo. Juvenile books can and do have big ideas, as Heinlein proved time and time again, but they have to express those ideas in a way that, first and foremost, appeals to the target audience. Appealing to adults is a bonus.

Between Planets is quite successful in appealing to juveniles, and I enjoyed it a great deal when I was a child, but it isn’t quite so good in retrospect. Rereading the book reminded me of just how much Heinlein managed to cram into a relatively short story, yet it also pointed out plot-holes and other weaknesses that let the side down. Truthfully, I would say that Between Planets is one of the lesser juveniles.

Don Harvey, a teenage schoolboy at a boarding school on Earth, wants nothing to do with politics. He comes from a mixed family – his scientist father was an Earth citizen, his scientist mother a Venus citizen and he was born in interplanetary space – and he doesn’t have a side. Both worlds are quite strange to him. However, politics is about to take an interest in him. Earth, growing increasingly repressive under the Federation’s law, has been threatening Venus … and the colonials are on the verge of open revolt. Don is barely aware of how bad things have become until he gets a message from his parents, ordering him to travel to Mars at once. Oh, and he has to look up an old friend of his family along the way.

Dismissed from his school, Don meets the friend and is given a gift for his parents – a child’s plastic ring, wrapped in paper. He is still puzzling over this when he gets arrested and interrogated by the security services, who appear to believe that he was given a message for his parents. After much trouble, Don is released – with the ring. The security services keep the paper, apparently under the belief that there might be an invisible message on it, and tell Don to leave the planet. His family friend apparently died of heart failure (which is, as Don realises, true of every form of death).

Taking ship to an orbital station, where he was meant to board his ship to Mars, Don discovers that it was captured by a raiding party from Venus. Having nowhere else to go – and being vouched for by a Venus Dragon (one of the planet’s natives) – Matt is allowed to go with them to Venus, where he finds himself in a political limbo. He gets a job washing dishes to save money to send a message to Mars; eventually, he gets close enough to a girl – Isabel – to ask her to take the ring for safekeeping. This is only just in time. Venus is invaded, Don is captured … and, unsurprisingly, the invaders want the ring.

Don escapes and joins the resistance, eventually making contact with a group of interplanetary rebels. They tell him the truth: his parents are part of the society and the ring contains one half of the instructions for making a new kind of space drive (and various other things, including a forcefield). Don recovers the ring from Isabel, gives it to the good guys and – eventually – finds himself crewing the new spaceship. There is a brief and very one-sided battle with the bad guys …

… And the story just ends.

I think that Between Planets is a fun read – and I enjoyed it a lot when I was a kid – but there are too many plot holes for me to take it seriously these days. The greatest of them, perhaps, is the simple fact that too many things could have gone spectacularly wrong. Don didn’t know – didn’t even guess – the true importance of the ring. He could have lost it, or sold it, or simply given it away at any moment along his trip to Venus, never knowing what he’d managed to lose. On one hand, what Don didn’t know Don couldn’t tell; on the other, Don could easily have thrown the ring away at any moment. The whole plot, which was thrown together at the last minute, could have gone badly wrong. Someone might easily have taken the ring off Don too. The security services could have confiscated it just to be dicks.

Indeed, the oddly businessman-like attitude of the security goons is at variance with real secret policemen. The kind of people who drift into those jobs love wielding power over their fellow men. They cannot tolerate any challenge, any more than a religious man can tolerate a challenge to his faith. It’s odd to see such nasty bastards be so understanding of Don’s hatred, let alone let him go (with the ring) afterwards. But then, there are limits to how far Heinlein could go in a juvenile book. Sixth Column was far more detailed in showing how secret policemen keep a society under control.

The second major problem is that the story reaches a certain point – the final engagement in space – and then stops. Don is not reunited with his parents, nor does he ever get to Mars; there’s no hint of what the post-war system will look like, now the war is over. And it would have been nice to see what his parents made of their son, now a man.

Indeed, Don himself is the core of the story. The politically-neutral young man who didn’t care about politics is forced to realise, to borrow a line from Heinlein himself, that politics is sometimes interested in him. He’s oddly passive, compared to some of Heinlein’s other heroes, but he does a lot of growing along the way. By the time Venus is invaded, Don is prepared to fight for it. There are some odd moments – he doesn’t seem to grasp the symbolism of giving Isabel a ring – but he is a genuine hero.

And yet, from another perspective, it’s possible to see him as a little brat. Given what was at stake, it’s hard to blame some of the rebels for being irritated with him. But then, he also got pushed around a lot while he was on Earth.

On a wider scale, the book also touches on issues of nationalism. Man wants to be free, but man also wants to belong. People join groups because they want – they need – social contact and, in order to get it, they are prepared to suppress their individuality to some degree. Going against the group can be dangerous, particularly during times of trouble. A person who does not contribute, or is seen as The Load, will often find himself kicked out when times are hard and resources are limited. As Heinlein put it:

[Don] was beginning to feel the basic, gnawing tragedy of the wartime displaced person—the loss of roots. Man needs freedom, but few men are so strong as to be happy with complete freedom. A man needs to be part of a group, with accepted and respected relationships. Some men join foreign legions for adventure; still more swear on a bit of paper in order to acquire a framework of duties and obligations, customs and taboos, a time to work and a time to loaf, a comrade to dispute with and a sergeant to hate—in short, to belong.”

Indeed, people who see themselves as global citizens – ‘citizens of the system,’ as Don puts it – are cutting themselves off from their homes. Why should someone who shows no loyalty to their country be defended by their country? It’s quite hard, now, to have any emotional attachment to an ideal – the European Union or the United Nations – and people who claim to be global citizens are only ducking the question of nationality. In the meantime, those who are nationalists regard them as potential traitors. Nationalism has led to many evils, throughout history, but so too has an absence of nationalism. It’s a question of perspective.

Don is not the only person – or organisation – in the book that can be seen from more than one perspective. Heinlein neatly points out that one person’s view of the situation may not be identical to another person’s view and what the first person might consider irrational behaviour might, to the second, be perfectly rational:

The [invasion of Venus] should not have happened, of course. The rice farmer sergeant had been perfectly right; the Federation could not afford to risk its own great cities to punish the villagers of Venus. He was right – from his viewpoint.

“A rice farmer has one logic; men who live by and for power have another and entirely different logic. Their lives are built on tenuous assumptions, fragile as reputation; they cannot afford to ignore a challenge to their power – the Federation could not afford not to punish the insolent colonists.”

It’s a valid point. And one that is too often forgotten these days. Indeed, along those lines, Heinlein provides an explanation of why we don’t trust experts. They get too many things wrong:

Everything is theoretically impossible, until it’s done. One could write a history of science in reverse by assembling the solemn pronouncements of highest authority about what could not be done and could never happen.”

Heinlein, as always, paints a fine universe. It’s clear, right from the start, that Earth is a repressive state on the brink of a war scare. His interplanetary travel descriptions are as excellent as always, although nowhere near as detailed as Farmer in the Sky or Starman Jones. And Venus, while bearing no resemblance to the real Venus, is a convincing colonial society, mingled with alien life forms that seem mildly amused with humanity. It’s the sort of place I might like to live, if there wasn’t the threat of an invasion. There are also some moments where Heinlein predicts the future, including Don carrying and using something akin to a mobile phone.

But, in other places, the book is tissue-thin. Don develops a relationship with Isabel, and at the end of the book seems to think he will be marrying her, but the relationship is so thin as to be unconvincing. (Heinlein himself pointed out that there were difficulties in including romance in juvenile books, running the risk of annoying either male readers or their parents.) The logic of using Don as an unwitting courier makes no sense, and putting him on the spacecraft is a dubious decision, while the end of the war isn’t explored at all. It’s nice to see Don finding a place, of sorts, but the story just ends.

Truthfully, Between Planets is a fun little read, but I think it is perhaps the least of Heinlein’s juveniles.

The Long-Range War (A Learning Experience V)–Snippet

13 Jun

I’m not sure when this will be finished, let alone edited and released, as my health has been awful, but it is on the way …

The Long Distance War Edit 3

Prologue

“Signal the fleet,” Empress Neola ordered. “The first divisions are to begin the attack.”

She ignored her flunkies as they scurried to do her bidding, instead lifting her eyes to the massive display. Hundreds of thousands of starships, from five-mile-long superdreadnaughts and battleships to tiny destroyers and frigates, the latter crewed by client races, were floating near the gravity point, slowly readying themselves to jump the hundreds of light years to Hudson in a single second. As she watched, the first flotillas moved forward and into the gravity point, flickering out of existence and vanishing. Neola tensed, despite herself. She was all too aware, despite the optimistic reports from her scouts, that the advance elements might well meet a hostile reception. There had been human ships based at Hudson until recently.

But it doesn’t matter, she told herself. The humans had superior firepower, but she had superior numbers. Vastly superior numbers. That’s why I sent the potentially disloyal elements into the fire first.

She kept her face completely expressionless as the second and third divisions rumbled towards the gravity point. It had taken years, far longer than she would have liked, to start reactivating the reserve. The gentocrats who’d ruled the Tokomak for thousands of years couldn’t react quickly to anything, even a threat to their existence. They’d refused to believe that a race as young as humanity could threaten their enforcers, let alone themselves; they’d found it easier to blame Neola for incompetence than stretch their minds to encompass a younger race that posed a real threat. She supposed she should be grateful. They hadn’t had the imagination to comprehend that she might pose a threat too. They’d expected her to sit tight and wait, for years if necessary, until they decided how they were going to slap her wrist. She was only a handful of centuries old, after all. There was no need for any real punishment.

And now they’re safely restrained, she thought, feeling a flicker of glee. They really hadn’t thought she could launch a coup. The idea was unthinkable until she’d actually done it. They can’t stand in the way any longer.

Neola sobered as the third division of starships blinked and vanished. The gentocrats hadn’t bothered to keep the reserve up to date. It hadn’t mattered, not when the pace of innovation had slowed down to a trickle. A starship built a thousand years ago was no better than one that had been completed only last week. But things were different now. The humans had proved themselves to be revoltingly ingenious and some of the other younger races were starting to follow in their footsteps. It was vitally important, if Tokomak supremacy was to be maintained, that the humans be enslaved or exterminated as quickly as possible. They were giving the other races ideas.

Her eyes found a cluster of icons moving into attack position and narrowed, sharply. The squadron commanders were young, only a few hundred years old. They’d had nothing to look forward to, but a long slow climb up the ladder … until now. She’d shown them that someone could overthrow the established order and take power for themselves, she’d shown them – inadvertently – how she herself could be overthrown. She wondered, grimly, which one would have the imagination to make a bid for power. The gentocrats would take years to plan a coup, more than long enough for her to nip it in the bud, but someone from her own generation might move faster. No, would move faster. Neola knew she wasn’t the only one to been impatient, over the last few centuries. The people she’d promoted – for having a certain level of imagination, for being able to think outside the rules and regulations they’d enforced on the known galaxy – were the ones most likely to be dangerous to her. Their ambitions would not be satisfied with anything less than absolute power.

It was, she acknowledged privately, a deadly balancing act. She needed people who could think outside the box … and there were very few of them, even amongst the young. Fleet operations had been so bound by formality over the last thousand years or so that too many officers simply didn’t know how to cope, when presented with an emergency. Their fleet exercises had been carefully scripted, with the winners and losers known in advance. But she couldn’t expect the humans to be conventional. Unconventional tactics were their only hope of surviving long enough to win the day.

She watched another set of icons vanish and smiled to herself. The humans were good, but they weren’t gods. They’d be crushed by overwhelming firepower, even if her trap failed completely. If she had to fly her fleet all the way to Earth and turn the planet into a radioactive wasteland, she could do it. She would do it. If worse came to worst, she told herself time and time again, the Tokomak could trade hundreds of starships for a single human ship. She would still come out ahead.

A blue icon appeared, near the gravity point. Neola allowed her smile to widen. Local space on the other side was clear, then. Very few races would challenge a Tokomak ship, even one that was completely alone, but it was well to be sure. Her intelligence staff had reported all sorts of rumours making their way through the empire, from vast defeats that had never happened to talk of mutiny and revolution. She was all too aware that the staff might not be picking up everything, no matter what they claimed. The underground knew how to hide itself. It would have been exterminated by now otherwise.

“Hudson has been secured, Your Excellency,” the communications officer reported. “There was little resistance.”

“Very good,” Neola said. She hadn’t expected resistance, but who knew? The humans had been making inroads on Hudson – and hundreds of other worlds – for years. “Take the remainder of the fleet through the gravity point.”

“As you command, Your Excellency.”

***

“It’s like a bloody nightmare.”

“Keep your eyes on your console,” Captain-Commodore Jenny Longlegs advised, dryly. Lieutenant Fraser had served long enough to remain calm, even if hell itself was pouring out of the gravity point. “Do we have an accurate ship count yet?”

“No, Captain,” Lieutenant Fraser said. “But definitely upwards of five thousand starships.”

Jenny sucked in her breath as more and more icons appeared on the display. The gravity point was disgorging a veritable river of starships. SUS Schlieffen, her cruiser, was more advanced than any of the superdreadnaughts and battleships forming into rows and advancing towards the planet, but Jenny doubted they’d survive long against such firepower. She prayed, silently, that the cloaking device held. The Tokomak weren’t trying to hide. Their sensors were sweeping space so thoroughly that they’d probably know the exact location of every speck of dust by the time they headed to the next gravity point. She might have to order her ship to back off before the Tokomak had a chance to spot her. They’d risked everything to grab SUS Odyssey. She was fairly sure they’d be just as interested in grabbing Schlieffen.

“They’re forming up,” Fraser reported. “One flotilla is headed directly for the planet, another is heading for Point Four.”

The shortest route to Earth, Jenny thought. It would still take months for the enemy fleet to reach the planet, and she had her doubts about their logistics, but there was no doubting the Tokomak’s willingness to expend starships to crush their enemies. Half the ships on the display would be crewed by client races, utterly expendable as far as their masters were concerned. They’re on their way.

She studied the display for a long moment, noting just how many ships had started to blur together into a haze of sensor distortion. Tokomak ECM was inferior to its human counterpart – the Tokomak hadn’t faced any pressure to improve or die for thousands of years – but quantity had a quality all of its own. Her passive sensors were having fits trying to keep track of each and every enemy starship. She had the nasty feeling that there were more enemy ships in the system than her sensors could detect. They might well be using their own ECM – and cloaking devices – to hide part of their fleet.

Although they’d be taking a risk, she thought. With so many ships in such a confined region of space, the odds of a collision are non-zero.

She dismissed the thought with a flicker of irritation. The Tokomak probably wouldn’t care if two of their ships collided, even if they were battleships. They had thousands of active starships and tens of thousands of starships in the reserves. Schlieffen could expend all her missiles, with each hit a guaranteed kill, and still lose. Quantity definitely had a quality all of its own.

“Captain,” Lieutenant Hammond said. “I have a direct link to Sweden. She’s requesting instructions.”

Jenny nodded, slowly. “Copy our sensor records to her,” she said. Sweden had held her position close to Point Four, ready to nip through before the Tokomak arrived and sealed the gravity point. Schlieffen would continue to monitor the enemy fleet from a safe distance, if indeed there was such a thing. “And then inform her CO that he is to run straight to Earth. Tell him …”

She sucked in her breath as she looked back at the display. The torrent of starships hadn’t stopped. Hundreds of superdreadnaughts were gliding through the gravity point, their weapons charged and their sensors searching for trouble. Whoever was in charge over there was no slouch. Normally, the Tokomak were careful not to put too much strain on their sensor systems. But then, who would dare to attack them? Their defeat in the Battle of Earth, seven years ago, had been their first defeat for nearly a thousand years.

And every ship they lost represented less than a percentage point of a percentage point of their overall numbers, she reminded herself. They could lose a thousand starships and never notice the loss.

“Tell him to warn everyone,” she finished. “The Tokomak are coming.”

Chapter One

Hameeda walked down the long corridor, alone.

It felt as if she was walking for miles, even though she knew the corridor was only a few short metres from one airlock to the other. She couldn’t help feeling nervous as she made her slow way towards the second airlock, despite all her preparations. It felt as if she was on the cusp of apotheosis or nemesis, the crowning height of her career or a disaster that would ensure she never served in space again. Her heart thumped so loudly in her chest that she was glad she was alone. Anyone escorting her wouldn’t need enhanced hearing to pick out her heartbeat.

She stopped outside the second airlock and took a long breath. Her CO had told her, an hour ago, that it wasn’t too late to back out. She didn’t have to go through with the bonding. No one would fault her for changing her mind, even now. The vast resources that had been expended on preparing her for the process would be better wasted, then expended on someone who didn’t want to go through with it. Hameeda understood their concerns – and her mother’s fears, during their last call – but she had no intention of backing out. The old fogies, the ones so old they remembered living on Earth, simply didn’t have the imagination of the spaceborn. They feared technology even as it had given them a chance to reshape both their former homeworld and the galaxy itself. Hameeda and her generation embraced the promise of technology, without fear. The future was within their grasp.

And we must make sure we have a future, she thought. Because there are always those ready to take it from us.

It wasn’t a pleasant thought. Her mother had been a refugee from Afghanistan, from a life so alien that Hameeda had problems grasping that it had ever existed. The mere concept of being forced into eternal servitude, simply for being born female, was difficult to grasp. How could someone be so uncivilised? And yet, after her mother had told her yet another horror story, Hameeda had looked it up. If anything, her mother had understated the case. Earth was an uncivilised world. They fought over nothing, even when they could reach out and claim the stars themselves. Their mere existence was a reminder that the human race could sink back into the mud.

Her reflection looked back at her. Hameeda had kept her mother’s dark hair, darker eyes and tinted skin, even as she’d spliced more and more enhancements into her genome. She was stronger, faster and fitter than any groundpounder, more than capable of holding her own in a fight. But she felt hesitant now. If something went wrong, if one of the doubters had been right all along … she’d be dead before she knew it. But life was risk. Safety was an illusion. And she knew better than to feel otherwise.

Hameeda took another breath, then pressed her hand against the sensor. There was a long moment as the security systems checked and rechecked her identity, then the airlock hissed open, revealing a vast hanger. Hameeda suddenly felt very small indeed. The LinkShip floated in the centre of the chamber, dwarfing her. It was tiny, compared to a regular starship; it was barely sixty metres from bow to stern. And yet, it was also the most advanced starship in the galaxy. Her FTL and realspace drives were the fastest known to exist, faster even than a courier belt. It had taken years to turn the concept into reality. Hameeda had spent almost as long training to serve as its – her – commanding officer.

She drank in the sight for a long moment, her eyes wandering over the dark hull. The LinkShip looked like a giant almond, its weapons and defences carefully worked into the material so they didn’t spoil the ship’s lines. Hameeda wasn’t sure how she felt about that, even though she admired the elegance. An observer would not have to look inside the ship to know she was a distinctly non-standard vessel. And yet, it was a step towards a human aesthetic that was obviously different from the galactic standard. Too many races, even the ones that had been walking the stars when humanity had been crawling in the mud, used modified Tokomak designs. Humanity had to be different.

Bracing herself, she activated her command implants and sent a command into the computer network. The world seemed to shimmer around her. Hameeda closed her eyes for a long moment as the teleport field made her entire body tingle, then opened them again. She was standing in the LinkShip’s command centre, alone. Her lips curved into a smile. The old fogies distrusted teleporters, asking all sorts of questions about souls and other unquantifiable issues none of the spaceborn understood. To them, teleporting was normal. Hameeda had been having her molecules broken down into energy and put back together again since she was a child. It was normally very safe.

Unless there’s a jamming field, she reminded herself, as she rested her hands on her hips. Or a delay that causes the energy pattern to start to degrade.

She pushed the thought out of her head as she surveyed the command centre. It looked bland and boring, compared to a starship’s bridge, but it was hers. A single chair, sited in the exact centre of the chamber; a helmet, primed to make the first connection between Hameeda and the ship’s datanet. There were no consoles, no display … there were emergency control systems, in another compartment, but very little effort had been wasted on them. Anything that broke through the LinkShip’s defences would almost certainly be enough to destroy the ship, or – at the very least – be completely beyond repair. Hameeda had been told, time and time again, that there would be very little hope of long-term survival. Once the Tokomak realised what the LinkShips were, they would do everything in their power to destroy them. Their mere existence was an affront to the laws the Tokomak had written for the entire galaxy.

And they may have had good reason to ban direct organic-computer interaction, Hameeda thought, as she sat down on the chair. We simply don’t know their reasoning.

She shook her head. The Tokomak had banned a lot of things, without bothering to explain their reasoning. Some of them made sense, she supposed; others appeared to have been banned without a valid reason. And still others appeared thoroughly pointless. She had no idea why they’d put a ban on interspecies relationships. It wasn’t as if they’d had to bother.

The air suddenly felt tense as she reached for the helmet. If she put it on, if she allowed her implants to make contact with the datanet, she would be bound to the LinkShip for the rest of her life. She wouldn’t be able to leave, not without breaking the connection. The scientists had sworn blind that there would be a way, eventually, to freeze the ship’s mentality to give her some downtime, but for the moment she was committing herself to remain on the ship permanently. Hameeda had no qualms about living on a starship – and she had no particular interest in returning to the carefree days of her youth – yet she knew it was one hell of a commitment. She would practically be a prisoner …

A prisoner with a starship and freedom to fly, she thought. She’d be a naval officer for decades, of course, but afterwards … she’d be free. I wonder where I’ll go.

She took a long breath, then pulled the helmet over her head. Her implants activated a second later, providing the datacores with a string of coded identifications that even she found hard to follow. She was dimly aware of classified systems steadily coming online, each one checking and rechecking the codes before slotting itself into the datanet. The sheer immensity of the LinkShip scared her, despite all her preparation. She’d put herself en rapport with an AI two weeks ago, but that had been different. She hadn’t been trying to bond with that AI.

The datanet came to life. “Are you ready to proceed?”

Hameeda blinked, surprised despite herself. It was talking … of course it was talking. Even a very basic system, a restricted intelligence, had simple conversational overlays, linked to a self-learning system that allowed it to evolve as it went along. She’d heard of RIs that had somehow managed to bootstrap themselves into true AIs, despite their programming. The old fogies had found that more than a little alarming, but Hameeda and her generation rather approved. Their creations had started to evolve.

“Yes,” she said. She made it as clear as she could. “Proceed.”

For a heartbeat, nothing happened. She had a moment to wonder if something had gone wrong, either with the technology or the command codes, before her mind was suddenly linked to something much greater. Her thoughts expanded with terrifying speed, reaching out to merge with the LinkShip’s datanet. She was suddenly very aware of everything from the drives, slowly readying themselves to push the LinkShip out of the hangar and into open space, to the weapons systems, currently powered down but ready for immediate activation if she had to go to war. She was linked to the ship … no, she was the ship. It was practically her body.

Wow, she thought, as a torrent of data poured into her brain. The ship’s sensors were sucking in data from all over the station. She could see everything. They were so sharp that she could even see a handful of starships holding position outside the station, watching and waiting. She felt a stab of bitter annoyance as she remembered why those starships were there. The naysayers had insisted, pointing out that the LinkShip might go insane. And they were wrong.

She powered up the drives slowly, watching as power ran through the tiny starship. It really was a miracle of science. She’d known that all along, of course, but she hadn’t really understood it until she’d actually touched the datanet. They’d miniaturised all sorts of systems in order to cram them into her hull, despite the risk. Warning icons flashed up in her mind as she checked the self-repair functions, pointing out their limitations. The naysayers had had a point about them, she reflected ruefully. A single hit might well be enough to cripple the LinkShip beyond repair.

Then we will have to be sure not to be hit, she thought, as she accessed the hangar datanet and opened the hatch. Luckily, we’re the fastest thing in space.

The LinkShip practically lunged forward as she gunned the drive, throwing itself into the inky darkness of space. Hameeda felt her mind split in two, one half thinking it was still human while the other half thought it was a starship. Space was both incredibly dangerous, lethal even to an enhanced human, and her natural habitat. Her mind expanded, once again: the station, the starships, a handful of test beacons … she was suddenly very aware of their exact locations. Subroutines within her mind assessed their positions, calculated their trajectories and analysed their threat potential. She would be safe enough, her mentality concluded, as long as she kept her distance.

But they would also be safe from me, she thought, as she circled the station. She felt like a child purchasing her first in-orbit buggy. No, like a child who had moved from a buggy to a marine assault shuttle with nothing in-between. The sheer potency of the LinkShip frightened her as much as it thrilled her. I’d have to close the range if I wanted to fight them.

A voice popped into her awareness. “LinkShip Alpha, please engage the first set of beacons.”

Hameeda smiled to herself as she swung the LinkShip around, bringing the weapons online. LinkShip Alpha. She was going to have to think of a better name. Perhaps something defiant, something that fitted humanity … or perhaps something that would make children smile, when they read her name in their history books. A subroutine went to work, considering possible names, even as she refocused her mind on her targets. The first ser of beacons were not designed to be hard to hit.

Baby steps, she told herself, as she started her attack run. Her phasers jabbed out, time and time again. The beacons vanished with terrifying speed. She reminded herself, sharply, that the beacons were practically begging to be killed. The next set of targets would be a great deal harder. You have to learn to walk before you can run.

But she wanted to run. Her mind had blurred so much into the ship that she was no longer truly certain where she ended and the ship began. Indeed, her mentality had imprinted itself upon the datanet. Her lips twitched in annoyance. The Solar Union might have been reluctant to build a ship that was commanded by an AI, but it had no qualms – or at least fewer qualms – about designing a ship to draw from a human mind. There was a part of her that simply wanted to throw caution to the winds and run as fast as she could, crossing the entire solar system in a split second. But her duty held her firmly in place.

Hameeda put the thought aside for later consideration as she put the LinkShip through its paces, systematically taking out target after target. The tests grew more complicated as she progressed, from targets that were hidden behind stealth coatings and cloaking devices to targets that actually shot back. She discovered that the LinkShip was perfectly capable of engaging targets while dodging incoming fire, although it lacked slammers and other heavy missiles. But with a little twiddling, she could turn the drive into a makeshift slammer. Who knew what would happen then?

I might get caught in the blast, she told herself. It was the sort of trick that worked in bad movies, but was completely useless in the real world. I’d have to be well away before the explosion hit.

Another voice entered her awareness as she completed the final set of tests. “Permission to come aboard?”

It took her a moment to draw her mind back to the here and now. Admiral Keith Glass wanted to board. She accessed the teleport system, synchronised with the station and yanked him onto the LinkShip, deliberately materialising him in the command centre. The process was easy, with the ship’s datanet handling the transfer, but a chill ran down her spine as she realised just how many buffers Glass’s pattern has passed through. Perhaps the old fogies were right to be concerned about teleporting. He appeared in front of her, his face darkening as he looked at her. It was harder than Hameeda had expected to disengage herself from the helmet and stand. Her legs felt wobbly. Her uniform was damp with sweat.

The datalink is still engaged, she thought. She might have disengaged from the helmet, but she was still linked to the ship. I can never leave again.

“An interesting set of tests,” Glass observed. He was studying her, his eyes – older than the rest of him – clearly concerned. “How are you feeling?”

“Different,” Hameeda admitted. Her throat felt parched, despite her enhancements. She was going to have to work on taking care of her body while she was directly connected to the ship. It would probably require a whole new set of subroutines. “It’s nothing like flying a regular starship.”

“One would hope so,” Glass agreed. He was old enough to remember when the most advanced spacecraft on Earth were rockets. “How well does it – does she – stack up against enemy systems?”

“She’s very agile,” Hameeda said. “And she combines speed and hitting power with stealth. I think they’ll have some problems hitting me.”

“So the simulations say,” Glass said. “And yourself? How are you feeling?”

Hameeda took a moment to allow her intellect to roam over the entire ship before she answered. “It will be different,” she said. The LinkShip was large enough to accommodate her and a few guests – indeed, her quarters were larger than the average admiral’s quarters – but she had a feeling it wouldn’t be long before the crew compartments started to feel small. “I will cope.”

Glass smiled, humourlessly. “I’m glad to hear it,” he said. “And so will the beancounters.”

“Until you tell them you intend to produce ten more,” Hameeda said, wryly. “They’ll throw a fit.”

She had to smile at the thought. The Solar Union could have produced ten cruisers for the cost of a single LinkShip, although she suspected that costs would be going down now the design was finalized. It wasn’t a small amount. The Solar Union was immensely rich, compared to many of the other younger races, but the cost was notable. If the first LinkShip didn’t pay off, in everything from tactical advantages to new technology, it was unlikely a second would be built. Her ship had to be a success if she didn’t want to remain unique.

“Let me worry about that,” Glass said. “Are you ready for deployment?”

Hameeda blinked. “Sir …?”

“The war may be about to resume,” Glass said. He looked faintly meditative for a second. “I believe that an ultimatum has already been received. So far, it’s been hushed up, but that won’t last.”

“No, sir,” Hameeda said, doubtfully. On one hand, she understood the principles of operational security; on the other, she – like most of her generation – believed that governments should not be allowed to classify anything. Secrecy always led to tyranny. It was a contradiction she’d never been able to resolve. “When do you expect me to be deployed?”

“Not long,” Glass said. He clapped her on the shoulder. “You’d better start planning to be gone within a week.”

Hameeda stared. “A week?”

“It’s nowhere near long enough for a proper shakedown,” Glass said. “But tell me … are there any problems?”

“No, sir,” Hameeda said, after a moment. “But if something makes itself apparent during the deployment …”

“You’ll cope with it,” Glass told her. “Word is, Captain, that this time it’s serious. And we have to be ready.”

“Yes, sir,” Hameeda said. “We will be ready.”

Review: Red Planet

9 Jun

“See here, Frank, do you really want to live a life bound around with rules and regulations and discipline?”

“Mmmm … I want to be a pilot. I know that.”

“On your own head be it. Me, I left Earth to get away from all that nonsense. Earth has gotten so muscle-bound with laws that a man can’t breathe. So far, there’s still a certain amount of freedom on Mars. When that changes—”

The third of Heinlein’s juveniles, Red Planet starts the development of themes that Heinlein would explore for the remainder of his career. Freedom, personal responsibility and the importance of being prepared to fight, at a moment’s notice, for both. It reads a little more cumbersome than Space Cadet – in some ways, Red Planet is a regression – but it very definitely has its moments. I enjoyed reading it when I was a child.

The plot is focused around Jim Marlowe and Frank Sutton, two teenage boys from Mars, and Jim’s pet, a native creature called Willis the Bouncer. (Heinlein did not know, at this point, that Mars would be effectively lifeless.) They both grew up in the colony, but are heading to the Lowell Academy (a boarding school) for the academic year. Despite opposition from his parents, Jim takes Willis along, something that leads to an encounter with the enigmatic Martians that ends with them being invited to become ‘water friends.’

When they reach the school, they clash with the new headmaster, Mr. Howe. Howe confiscates Willis, something that comes back to bite him when Willie remembers and repeats a conversation between Howe and Beecher, the colonial administrator. Beecher has unpleasant plans for the colony, starting with blocking the annual migration from the north to the south so that both sets of buildings can be populated at the same time. This would be lethal to the colonists, old and new, as the reason behind the migration is to avoid severe winter weather.

Jim and Frank set out to warn their parents and the rest of the colony, skating along the frozen canals. They nearly die, but because of their friendship with another Martian they are helped to reach their home by the natives. The colonists, running out of time, start the migration anyway, which nearly leads to disaster when they are confronted by Beecher and the corporation’s troops. There is a brief skirmish, which ends with Beecher’s defeat and the colonists proclaiming their independence from Earth.

Unfortunately, the native Martians have also decided to take a hand. After killing Howe (for his abuse of Willis, now revealed to be a Martian child) they order the remainder of the colonists to leave Mars. Fortunately, because of Jim’s friendship with Willis, the Martians reluctantly relent. Jim is forced to give up his friend so he can make the transition into adulthood.

On a micro scale, Red Planet has many nice moments. The core of the story is the friendship between Jim, Frank and Willis, with all three of them risking their lives for the others. Jim, the viewpoint character, is very understandable, even though his society is quite different from ours. Heinlein also gives him a mentor, of sorts, in the old and erratic Dr. MacRae, who is stubborn, defiant and, when the colonists falter, gives them a pep talk that keeps them going.

A juvenile character is always restricted by his age – a common problem in such novels – but Heinlein neatly sidesteps the issue here. He makes it sound logical that Jim would be in a position to realise what is actually going on and do something about it. Later, he also captures the unwillingness of some people to rock the boat, even when disaster is breathing down their necks.

But, on a macro scale, Red Planet has many lessons for teenage boys.

The core conflict, between the colonists and the corporation, is precisely what you tend to get when the people in charge are divorced from the realities on the ground. Beecher and his superiors simply don’t understand why the migration is important, nor does Howe grasp the dangers of venturing outside the domes (and thus trying to confiscate guns). Heinlein neatly demonstrates how people get trapped by a steady stream of new rules, an early display of the ‘cook a frog by slowly turning up the heat’ principle. Each of the new rules, building on the one before, strips more freedom and independence from the boys until it is too late. There is a lesson here for those who wonder why the bureaucratic state is feared.

Part of the problem, of course, is that each of the new rules allows newer and better opportunities for cheating and corruption. The people with the right mindset find ways to exploit it, while others are forced to suffer. However, it is impossible to convince the rule-makers – and the grafters – that perhaps the rules should be cut down sharply. The people who benefit from such stupidity have no interest in making life harder for themselves.

Indeed, the corporation is not evil (although Beecher very definitely is). It’s just ignorant and stupid. And it is that ignorance that threatens to get everyone killed.

A further problem is the sheer time it can take to convince policy-makers to change their minds, if they can be convinced. By the time the colonists can manage to get a protest back to Earth, it will already be too late to stave off disaster. They have to take matters into their own hands or die in the winter.

Red Planet is also the first of Heinlein’s books to focus on the frontier life, something that Heinlein would idealise in later years. He works hard to show us that there is no room for petty rules and regulations – and even social conventions – on the frontier, pointing out that children have to grow up fast:

Now as I see it, this is a frontier society and any man old enough to fight is a man and must be treated as such—and any girl old enough to cook and tend babies is an adult, too. Whether you folks know it yet or not, you are headed into a period when you’ll have to fight for your rights. The youngsters will do most of the fighting; it behooves you to treat them accordingly. Twenty-five may be the right age for citizenship in a moribund, age-ridden society like that back on Earth, but we aren’t bound to follow customs that aren’t appropriate to our needs here.”

Indeed, Heinlein seems to have worked out how a habitable Mars might look like – it’s clear that elements from Red Planet were later worked into Stranger in a Strange Land – and how it might shape its population. Mars of Red Planet is both strikingly familiar and alien enough to be different. It’s the sort of place an adventurous young man might want to grow up.

And yet, the book also shows signs of its era. There is surprisingly little female presence, save for an annoying little sister … but then, the book also makes a case for the female right to keep and bear arms. (Useful, in a dangerous environment.) The bad guys also pick up the idiot ball from time to time: Howe confiscates Willis because he hears the Martian repeat a series of unflattering remarks about him, but he doesn’t realise that Willis will also hear and repeat his discussion with Beecher, which sets off the chain of events that lead to their defeat.

Overall, Red Planet is a good read – and very appealing to teenage boys, its intended audience. And its core message has not aged at all.

A Tale of Two People

9 Jun

This started as a result of a discussion about conventions and, perhaps more importantly, me waking up in no state to write.

As a general rule, there are two sorts of people – mostly, although not always, male – who will push the boundaries to the point they make other people feel uncomfortable. Call these guys the ‘Socially Awkward Guy’ and ‘Really Creepy Guy.’

The Socially Awkward Guy has had very few opportunities to learn social interaction by doing. He may have been socially excluded at school – the nerd who got dumped on by everyone else – or there may have been something in his background that made it hard for him to interact with other people; he might be autistic, for example, or simply very shy. It is a struggle for Socially Awkward Guy to open a conversation with anyone and, when there are several people in the conversation, Socially Awkward Guy tends to slink out of everyone else’s awareness. He may have good points to make, but never sees an opportunity to actually speak. Socially Awkward Guys like fandom – nerdy fandom – because it provides something they can use to get social interaction.

Socially Awkward Guy is not particularly empathic, not in the sense that he is capable of understanding how he comes across to others. They simply don’t realise that they say or do things that make people uncomfortable, largely because they have problems understanding that people can find them threatening. (Remember, they were the ones who got dumped on by everyone else.) At their worst, Socially Awkward Guys curdle; they become so resentful of the way they are treated, which barely registers on everyone else’s radar, that they go looking for a way to hit back.

The Really Creepy Guy, by contrast, knows precisely what he’s doing. His every act is designed to push the window of acceptable conduct, at least for him; if you give him an inch, he’ll take a mile. Everything he does will be surrounded by layer upon layer of plausible deniability – “oh, she was overreacting” – and he will have neither compunction or trouble in manipulating everyone into supporting him. Really Creepy Guys like fandom because nerds are instinctively opposed to excluding anyone, no matter how creepy they may be.

Really Creepy Guy is often very empathic, in the sense he understands just how far he can go. He often understands the rules of social interaction very well, to the point where he can manipulate authority – however defined – into supporting him. He’s good at reading people, allowing him to tell who will stop him and who will refuse to take a stand. Really Creepy Guy can be charming and funny, but also toxic. His mere presence drives people away.

The problem facing convention organisers is two-fold. First, it can be hard to tell the difference between Socially Awkward Guy and Really Creepy Guy. Second, Really Creepy Guy tends to have more social capital than Socially Awkward Guy, which makes it harder to take action against him. (This is probably why Harvey Weinstein got away with it for so long.) The organiser may discover that there are people who will threaten to walk, if Really Creepy Guy is banned. These people either don’t understand just how much of a drain Really Creepy Guy is or simply don’t care. Remember, Really Creepy Guy is good at getting people to support him.

What makes this worse is that using the wrong approach can be disastrous.

Socially Awkward Guy has had, almost certainly, very bad experiences with bullies. If you come down on him like a ton of bricks, humiliating him in public, kicking him out of the one place he feels comfortable and blacklisting him so he can’t go anywhere else, he will see you as yet another bully and hate you. He’ll be so focused on his pain that he won’t be able to see – or care about – anyone else. And, as many nerds will take his side, they’ll come to see you as the villain. The convention will lose attendees from the class that actually keeps it going.

Really Creepy Guy, on the other hand, will not respond to anything other than a metaphorical punch in the snout. He will see warnings, however expressed, as a sign of weakness, as a sign that you are not prepared to push matters to the brink. He’ll take heart from your weakness and carry on, which will – obviously – cost you more attendees. Really Creepy Guy, again, drives away the sort of people you need to run a convention.

So how, then, do you tell the difference?

Socially Awkward Guy will be grateful, almost pathetically grateful, if you take him aside and gently tell him – in private – that his behaviour is unacceptable. Don’t be threatening; be calm and reasonable and at least try to be understanding. He will be embarrassed and apologetic and, because you had the talk in private, will not feel humiliated by you. (You may even discover that he asks you for advice.) And he will try to do better.

Really Creepy Guy will not get any better. Like I said, he’ll see it as a sign of weakness and carry on. At this point, you can lower the boom; ban him from the convention, make it clear that you banned him for repeated misbehaviour, do your best to put together a case proving that Really Creepy Guy is a real creep. If someone tries to argue in his defence, you can ask them if this is the behaviour they really want to tolerate. He was warned, he carried on; you no longer have any reason to be nice.

The problem, of course, is that Really Creepy Guy is good at dancing along the line without quite crossing it. There will be people who will argue “I never saw him do it, so he didn’t do it.” That’s why you need to put together a case proving that he’s a drain on the convention; you have to not only do the right thing, but make it clear you did the right thing. The last thing you want is to convince people that you were picking on a Socially Awkward Guy when you were removing a Really Creepy Guy.

But, if there’s one thing I’ve noticed over the years, it is that it’s really easy to pick on a Socially Awkward Guy and quite hard to remove a Really Creepy Guy.

Snippet–Family Magic

5 Jun

I just had this going around and around in my head.  No idea when it will be written.

Prologue

Mordred Caldecott had always hated hospitals.

He followed the bewitched nurse through the double-doors, trying not to look into any of the wards. They were a grim reminder that not everything could be fixed by magic, even the family magic running through his bloodline. A handful of doctors and nurses ran past them, thankfully not pausing to question his presence. He knew he wasn’t supposed to be anywhere near the ICU.

“Your brother is there,” the nurse said, nodding down the corridor. Her face twitched as she paused, as if she was trying to remember something. “I …”

“Thank you,” Mordred said. He’d used a very light spell on her, just enough to make her compliant. She had no more magic than the average dull, but she knew that something was wrong. “You may go.”

The nurse turned and walked away. Mordred eyed her back for a moment, muttering a forgetfulness cantrip under his breath. Better she forgot him than start wondering why she’d taken a stranger through two sealed doors and into the ICU. Who knew what would happen if she told her story to the wrong person? The hospital was neutral ground, but a handful of magicians worked there. They’d be irritated if they discovered that someone had messed with the nurse’s mind.

He braced himself, then looked at his brother. Galahad Caldecott was sitting on a bench beside a half-open door, his head in his hands. Galahad was only twenty-three, but he looked older. His hair was a mess, his face was covered in stubble and he barely moved. Mordred would have thought he was dead – or petrified – if he hadn’t been able to see his brother breathing. He looked as if he’d been pushed too far over the last few hours. Something bad had happened.

Galahad looked up as Mordred approached. “She’s dead.”

“I … I’m sorry to hear that,” Mordred said. He didn’t have to ask who was dead. There was only one person in the world who could provoke that sort of reaction from his younger brother. “I … what happened?”

“She died on the operating table,” Galahad said. He looked back at his hands. “I …”

Mordred winced. He’d never really approved of his brother’s marriage to Minerva Swift, not when their families had been enemies for centuries, but he’d done everything in his power to make it work. And it had worked. Galahad and Minerva had bound the two families together, with their children expected to combine the two families into one. But if Minerva had died in childbirth … he swallowed, hard. What had happened to her children?

“They’re dulls,” Galahad said. “No magic.”

“Impossible,” Mordred said. Everyone knew that a witch’s children would have magic, even if she married a dull. Minerva had been strong enough to ensure her children would be powerful indeed. “Galahad …”

“Percival did the test.” Galahad sounded broken. “A boy and a girl, both healthy … but no magic.”

“I’m sorry,” Mordred said, again. It seemed so … inadequate, somehow. To lose both his wife and children in one day … no wonder his brother was a broken man. “Do you want me to make the arrangements?”

Galahad looked at him. “The arrangements?”

“To have them adopted,” Mordred told him. “They can’t grow up here …”

His brother’s face darkened. Magic shifted around him, sharp-edged and dangerous. “Are you suggesting that I should abandon my children? Send them away into a stranger’s home?”

Mordred met his eyes. “And what will happen if they grow up here?”

He waited, unsure what his brother would do. Galahad had always been the emotional one of the family, throwing himself headfirst into things while his older brother took the time to actually think about what he was doing. Perhaps it had been why he’d been so quick to marry Minerva Swift, after they’d fallen in love. His emotions had pushed him into the match even though cold logic warned that there would be trouble ahead. Two feuding families would not bury the hatchet indefinitely. His children might wind up being caught between two fires.

But it doesn’t matter, he told himself. They’re dulls.

“You know what will happen,” he said. “They’ll be mocked, just for having been born without magic. They’ll be hexed and jinxed and treated like …”

His brother clenched his fists. “And do you think I’d let that happen?”

Mordred swallowed. His brother was strong, in muscle and magic. It had been a long time since Mordred had been able to beat sense into Galahad’s head. Yes, Galahad could protect his powerless children – very few people wanted to get on his bad side – but what sort of lives would they lead? And what would happen when their father died? Or remarried? Sibling rivalry could get really ugly if one child had magic and the others did not. Magic children didn’t have to be openly malicious to have a nasty effect on their powerless siblings. It was better for the dull children to be raised amongst their fellows, rather than forced to watch and envy magic they could never have. It was common sense.

“They’ll be better off away from here,” Mordred said, finally. “Let them grow up without magic, away from us and the Swifts and …”

A baby cried from within the room. Mordred felt his heart clench. It was better not to go inside, it was better not to look … it was better not to put names and faces to children he’d have to send away. He started to reach for his brother’s arm, to drag him away, then saw his brother’s face and stopped. He knew that look. Galahad had made up his mind about something and nothing, not even the most powerful and dangerous spells in the family books, would stop him.

“I’ll take them myself,” Galahad said. “I’ll raise them away from here and …”

“Be reasonable,” Mordred said. “Can you raise two dull children …”

“They’re my children,” Galahad snapped. He stood, brushing down his shirt and trousers. “And they’re all that remains of her!”

“They’re dull,” Mordred said. “You’ll be cutting yourself off from the rest of the family …”

“Well, the family hasn’t done much for me,” Galahad snapped. “Look me in the eye and tell me that the uncles and aunts are not going to be pleased at Minerva’s death! Or that her children are powerless.”

Mordred let out a heavy sigh. “Brother, please.”

“No,” Galahad said, shortly. His expression told Mordred that further argument would be futile. Once Galahad had made up his mind it was impossible to talk him out of it. “I’m taking my children and taking them a long way away. And we will never come back.”

“Never is a long time,” Mordred said. There were very few places in the United States where magicians could practice their art openly. The Burning Times might be long over, but the community had never forgotten. Galahad would have to keep his magic concealed, if he was able to use it at all. “And you will always be welcome here.”

“But they won’t be welcome,” Galahad said. He pushed open the door. The noise of crying babies grew louder. “And as long as they’re not welcome here, I won’t be coming back.”

Review: Expanded Universe

5 Jun

“Each copy is guaranteed – or double your money back – to be printed on genuine paper of enough pages to hold the covers apart.”

Heinlein’s Introduction

Expanded Universe, published in 1980, is an odd collection of miscellaneous short stories, non-fiction articles and commentary written by Heinlein himself. It is an expansion of The Worlds of Robert A. Heinlein, but well-worth reading in its own right. And yet, given that it collects a number of stories that weren’t published too often, it is also a guide to Heinlein’s earlier and more limited works. There are insights here, but also reminders that Heinlein took time to develop into the Grandmaster of Science-Fiction we admire.

Some of the stories can be dismissed fairly quickly. Cliff and the Calories, for example, features a girl who is trying to diet in hopes of impressing her boyfriend. It’s sloppy, sentimental and very unlike Heinlein. They Do It With Mirrors is a murder mystery with a curious resolution (and Heinlein himself notes that crime does not pay – enough – to convince him to keep writing whodunit stories.) No Bands Playing, No Flags Flying takes an unsentimental look at bravery; A Bathroom of Her Own is a political story of dirty tricks and naivety, perhaps based on Heinlein’s own experience, with a surprising twist at the end. Nothing Ever Happens on the Moon and Searchlight are both stories of adventures on the lunar surface, the former reminding me – again – why I didn’t like being a Boy Scout. But it does have a scoutmaster who actually remembers he isn’t one of the boys.

Other stories take a look at how technology can change the world – and wonder, in a curiously pessimistic way, if we will survive our own technology. Blowups Happen suggests that there will always be disasters, no matter how many precautions we take; Heinlein, in his reflection, points out that nuclear disasters have never been as bad as the naysayers claim, a sharp response to the hysterics of anti-nuclear activists. Solution Unsatisfactory, by contrast, speculates on what might happen when the United States develops an ultimate weapon; radioactive dust, dropped from the skies. It is a curious story, one that was outdated even when written; indeed, in many ways, it illustrates the limitations of Heinlein’s thinking at the time. It’s worth studying in more detail.

The story is focused around Clyde Manning, a retired US Army officer who became a congressman after being forced to retire for heart problems. (Panshin suggests, in his detailed analysis of the story, is that there was more than a little wish-fulfilment in this.) Manning is hand-picked to run a project intended to produce new weapons for the military, a project that eventually leads to KO Dust. Dropped from the skies, the dust can exterminate a city’s population within hours. Manning, believing that this changes the world, insists that the dust be used to force Germany to surrender and establish American hegemony over the entire world … in self-defence. The alternative, he insists, is a cycle of destruction that will end with civilisation reduced to barbarism.

But each shift in the balance of power – a war, the foundation of an international authority to control the world – puts Manning closer and closer to absolute power. And, when it ends, Manning is the de facto world dictator. Did he aim for power all along? Or did he merely take advantage of each and every opportunity to enhance his position? And what happens when his dicey heart kills him? Panshin suggests that there is a whiff of sulphur around Manning and he isn’t wrong. Manning, in most of Heinlein’s stories, would be the villain. Is he the villain here? Even if he is nothing more than a well-intentioned extremist, doing what he believes has to be done, he’s laying the groundwork for tyranny or global war. It is a disturbing story, although it glosses over points where someone really should have said ‘no’ to Manning.

Life-Line, pretty much the first story Heinlein wrote (or at least the first one he sold), is both different in tone to his later stories and yet, in many ways, a clear sign of Heinlein’s approach to such issues. He postulates a new piece of technology – in this case, a device that lets you predict your date of death – and then asks himself what impact it would have on the world. In this case, the losers are insurance companies. As one of them moans: “It gets worse every day. We’ve paid off thirteen big policies this week; all of them taken out since Pinero started operations.”

They do try to stop the inventor, first by taking him to court in hopes of getting an injunction placed on his activities. The inventor, however, pours scorn on this suggestion:

It is true that the [insurance firm] has lost business through my activities, but that is the natural result of my discovery, which has made their policies as obsolete as the bow and arrow. If an injunction is granted on that ground, I shall set up a coal-oil-lamp factory, and then ask for an injunction against the Edison and General Electric companies to forbid them to manufacture incandescent bulbs.”

And the judge agrees:

There has grown up in the minds of certain groups in this country the notion that because a man or corporation has made a profit out of the public for a number of years, the government and the courts are charged with the duty of guaranteeing such profit in the future, even in the face of changing circumstances and contrary to public interest. This strange doctrine is not supported by statute nor common law. Neither individuals nor corporations have any right to come into court and ask that the clock of history be stopped, or turned back.”

The inventor is one of Heinlein’s most personable characters, alternatively lambasting the hidebound scientists in universities while praising the press (who talk like stereotypical reporters from that era) and daring the insurance men to stop him. He is both a good guy and a bad guy, in some ways; he has a point, but he’s also something of a jerk. His reluctance to explain how his device functions works against him, although he’s quite correct to argue that he can prove that it works through correctly predicting dozens of death dates. And his refusal to share means that the secret of the device dies with him (it’s revealed at the end that he predicted his own death.)

Despite its crudeness, in places, Life-Line touches on matters that have considerable modern-day relevance. Each technological development leads to winners and losers – Amazon has displaced many traditional publishers, while Uber has threatened taxi companies – and its natural for the losers to try to turn back the clock. But they can’t turn it back. Companies – and governments – that fail to adapt go the way of the dinosaur. Heinlein does not touch on other matters – if you knew you were going to die tomorrow, what would you do? – but he doesn’t have to in order to make his point. Change happens. Adapt or die.

The Happy Days Ahead is a curious mixture of fiction and non-fiction, the story of story that starts with the idea ‘what would I do if I ran the government?’ It may well be the precursor to stories like Executive Orders or The General’s President, where someone from outside government is appointed to fix the mess caused by the professional politicians. In this case, a presidential candidate appoints a dark horse candidate as VP, which puts her in the Oval Office when the president dies in a drunken accident. Yes, her: Heinlein not only presented a female president, he presented a black female president. She promptly ignores suggestions she should resign and starts improving the country. As is always the case in this sort of story, the suggestions work perfectly and the country thrives. And many of her suggestions are very good ones.

The non-fiction articles are of considerable interest, although many of them are quite dated now. “Pravda” Means “Truth” and Inside Intourist discuss Russia and the communist threat to the west, outlining how communists bend the truth to their will as well as detailing the dangers (particularly to your wallet) in travelling behind the Iron Curtain. Some of the truths are still with us today, most notably the fact that communists will not only try to keep people ignorant, but repeat lies time and time again until they sink in beyond all possibility of doubt:

“We were waiting in the Kiev airport, May 14. The weather was foul, planes were late and some 30 foreigners were in the Intourist waiting room. One of them asked where we were going and my wife answered that we were flying to Vilno.

“Vilno? Where is that? My wife answered that it was the capital of Lithuania, one of the formerly independent Baltic republics which the USSR took over 20 years ago—a simple historic truth, as indisputable as the fact of the Invasion of Normandy or the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

“But the truth is not pravda.

“A young Intourist guide present understood English, and she immediately interrupted my wife, flatly contradicted her and asserted that Lithuania had always been part of the Soviet Union.”

I’ve never been to Russia, but from what I’ve heard Heinlein understated the case. Spies everywhere; a tourist was not (is not?) supposed to go anywhere without a government minder. The USSR was a prison camp above ground and a mass grave below. And yet, there are people who hold it up as a great dream. It was a nightmare.

The remaining pieces of non-fiction touch on this to a greater or lesser degree. Heinlein’s call to arms – and nuclear testing – that eventually lead to Starship Troopers is overdramatic to my ears, but Heinlein wasn’t actually wrong. The Soviet Union was inherently untrustworthy, lying to its own people as well as to foreigners who wanted to believe the pretty lies. And yes, there was a reason to want nuclear testing stopped that benefited the USSR; they were behind at the time and knew it, although the US didn’t know it. Later, Heinlein discusses the importance of patriotism, the spin-offs of the space program (which has paid for itself a thousand times over) and the future within our grasp. It can be ours if we reach out and take it.

Overall, Expanded Universe is something of a mixed bag, but the stories within its pages are well worth a read. And Heinlein’s commentary is often amusing, often droll … and an insight into a man who’d had a remarkable career.